HONOLULU – It could become the toughest three-game stretch – by rankings in the Associated Press poll – Gonzaga has encountered since stepping onto college basketball’s national stage 25 years ago.
Either way, Gonzaga will learn a lot about its new-look squad over the next three days at the Maui Invitational, which has outdone itself with four teams picked to win their respective power conferences, five ranked in the top 11 and seven sporting unbeaten records with the season just two weeks old.
No. 11 Gonzaga (2-0) runs into No. 2 Purdue (3-0) for the second straight year at a holiday tournament. The Zags are hoping for a different outcome Monday after falling to the Boilermakers 84-66 at the PK85 last November in Portland.
Next up is No. 7 Tennessee, the SEC preseason favorite, or Syracuse on Tuesday. The other half of the bracket features No. 1 Kansas against Division II Chaminade (1-2) and No. 4 Marquette taking on UCLA, just outside the top 25 in the latest AP poll.
Kansas is the Big 12 favorite. Marquette was atop the Big East preseason poll, in front of Creighton and defending national champion UConn.
But first things first. Purdue is favored to repeat as Big Ten champs, and 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey is the frontrunner to repeat as national player of the year.
“These next couple days (following Tuesday’s rout over Eastern Oregon) is preparing for everything you’re going to see over a three-day period because you don’t have a lot of time to prepare,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “It’s rare to have three games in three days anymore – usually you get a day (off) in there – so that’s a huge challenge also.
“And you face varying defenses, totally different personnel, different offenses, different out of bounds (plays), late-game situations. You will pretty much see everything you’re going to see the rest of the year. It’s a lot, but that’s why (holiday tournaments) are so valuable.”
Edey is the first item on every opponent’s scouting report, but his supporting cast looks better and deeper than last season. Starting guards Braden Smith (11.7 points, 8.3 assists and 6.0 rebounds) and Fletcher Loyer (8.1 points, 41.7% on 3-pointers) stung the Zags as freshmen last year.
Guard Lance Jones transferred from Southern Illinois, where he was a two-time Missouri Valley All-Defensive team selection. He led the conference with 54 steals last year. His 205 3-pointers rank third in SIU history and he’s 12th in scoring with 1,514 points.
“We have a lot of guys back, we had two kids that redshirted (last year), we added on guy out of the portal and one high school kid,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “So we’ve added some athleticism and quickness, which is what we felt we needed.”
The Boilermakers gained experience during a European summer tour without Edey, who played for the Canadian national team at the FIBA World Cup. Sophomore forward Trey Kaufman-Renn averaged 18 points and 8.8 rebounds to lead the team in Europe. He’s moved into the starting lineup after averaging 11.3 minutes last season.
Edey and Gonzaga’s Ryan Nembhard, who earned All-Tournament honors last year in Maui with Creighton, were teammates on Canada’s U19 squad when Team USA, led by former Zag Chet Holmgren, won the 2021 World Cup in Latvia.
“He kind of was a late bloomer, so he didn’t really show up until ninth, 10th grade and by then I went to Montverde (Academy in Florida) so we didn’t really know each other much until we played on Team Canada,” Nembhard said. “He’s just a great dude, great player obviously and we’ve definitely got our hands full with him.”
Purdue has won 27 straight regular-season, nonconference games – the next closest nationally is UConn at 15 – but its last loss was a bitter one. The top-seeded Boilermakers fell to No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
“Going through what they went through last year, I’m sure there’s an incredible hunger and drive to make a statement this year with all they have coming back,” Few said.
It’ll be interesting to see how GU’s coaching staff distributes minutes as the tournament unfolds. Depending on the matchups, the Zags could be in three tight contests against high-level competition.
Gonzaga’s starting backcourt of Nembhard and Nolan Hickman logged heavy minutes in a 15-point win over Yale in the season opener. Freshman Dusty Stromer stepped in at starting wing after Steele Venters tore his ACL in practice just days before the opener. Yet to be determined is who claims backup minutes with Jun Seok Yeo or Luka Krajnovic vying for time.
“It’s really hard,” Few said of the three-games-in-three-days format. “And then you’re also playing in a warm climate with humidity so you really have to do a great job taking care of your bodies. It’s a stress on the trainer, everybody, but it’s good, it’s all good. It’s always been a great experience for the program.”